This article was originally published on: Mansfield News journal

Original Article: Social media is complicating crime scenes

Written by: Lou Whitmire

 

MANSFIELD – Often people find out about the death of a loved one on Facebook.

The Ohio Revised Code requires that once a victim who dies as a result of an accident or crime is positively identified, a law enforcement or coroner’s official is required to notify next of kin. But social media is increasingly making that notification a moot point.

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In one recent Mansfield violent crime, Richland County Coroner’s Investigator Bob Ball said he was preparing to send a uniformed officer and a chaplain to a family’s house to notify them their loved one had been killed, when the victim’s family members showed up at the crime scene.

 

And recently, the teen-aged daughter of a murder victim called him on his cell phone at a crime scene, having learned of her mother’s death on social media.

With social media, Twitter and Facebook all being instantaneous, Ball said families are finding out a loved one has died before the coroner’s office confirms the identity of the individual.

“Social media is killing us,” said Ball.

“We can’t beat it. We’re trying to get positive identification made so we can get to the next of kin before the media does or social media,” Ball said.

“It’s a sad situation. People need to respect the order of the process. They need to at least give us a chance to find out what is going on. Sometimes we don’t even know. We’re trying to get together with the police, the medical examiner’s office and the family, the funeral homes. There’s a lot of process that goes into this. And telling someone one thing, and finding out later in the autopsy, it’s different doesn’t make us look good. We want to do the best job for the family,” Ball said.

Ball said sometimes the coroner’s office cannot make a positive identification of a deceased person right away.

“Sometime’s we’re not positive (on the ID) and we don’t know who the person is,” he said. Sometimes the next of kin is needed to make a positive ID on the body or X rays or dental records may be needed.

“And then social media starts making speculation,” Ball said.

“The thing I worry about the most is a family member finding out their loved one has been in a car crash or in a death scene and they find out on social media. That’s my biggest fear and it’s started happening,” Ball said.

Ball said he wishes people would just respect the families.

“At least respect the families that it is a traumatic incident that has taken place,” he said.

Ball said he has had cases where people contact the parents that their son or daughter is dead in a parking lot.

“Think about the families. No matter what kind of case it is, that’s somebody’s son, daughter…. That’s the biggest thing we fight with,” he said.

The News Journal, and most news media, do not identify victims until the coroner’s office  or law enforcement confirms the next of kin has been notified.

Mansfield police Capt. Shari Robertson said in the past, it could be hours before anyone would show up on a crime scene.

But she said because of technology, Facebook postings and Twitter messages, the issues officers are dealing with now is that the news is instantaneous.

“It could be a neighbor, it could be someone passing by. Maybe a family member has contacted somebody and they’ve  put it on Facebook, ‘Oh my gosh I’m hearing this,’ without any confirmation,'” she said.

Family members have come to the crime scenes where police have not yet been able to confirm the victim’s identity, Robertson said.

“And we can’t tell them (if it is their loved one) and not only are they upset with the possibility of losing a loved one (and rightfully so) but now they’re upset with us because we didn’t notify them sooner but we haven’t had a chance to positively identify our victim,” she said.

She said more families are showing up on crime scenes.

“We’ve had to dedicate resources to help calm them down, to keep them out of our crime scenes which in turn delays our response to investigating what is happening, to positively identifying the victims and maybe even sending out alerts on the suspect or other potential victims, such as Amber Alerts or BOLOS to law enforcement,” Robertson said.

“That’s probably the biggest challenge for us right now, the additional staffing issues it poses at the crime scene that we didn’t have in the past to protect the integrity of the crime scene, which is paramount to our investigation to ensure it is done correctly, that the scene is not contaminated in any way that could bring any possible doubt during the prosecution of a suspect or suspects,” she said.

“I’m asking on behalf of the victims, … be cognizant of your actions by posting things,” she said. “It causes great trauma to these families.”

And, she said, sometimes people post information on Facebook which is inaccurate, causing family members or friends to believe the suspects’ names posted are the suspects when they are not, which adds another dynamic to the investigation.

One time, Robertson said she had a friend in another state receive a photo of her son laying in the median of a highway with a blanket over him. He was not dead but was in shock, Robertson said.

She said a social media poster’s actions have consequences.

But social media’s impact on crime and accidents has not been all negative.

Robertson said on the flip side, social media sometimes provides law enforcement with tips and assistance on cases.

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